Take it Outside: The 2012 NHL Winter Classic Snooze

By Corey Johnson

JANUARY 2, 2012, the National Hockey League presented its fifth annual Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Flyers hosted the Rangers, and the visiting team won 3-2. The problem? No one gave a crap. NBC drew an overnight rating of just 2.4 for this year’s version of the Classic, the lowest yet in the game’s five-year history.

Maybe it was because the Flyers and the Rangers lack the big rivalry angle (think Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Winter Classic of 2011). Maybe Citizens Bank Park wasn’t historic enough for fans to care (unlike when the Flyers visited the Bruins at the legendary Fenway Park in 2010). Or maybe the idea of an outdoor hockey game has just gotten old (the fifth installment of the Winter Classic was the NHL’s seventh outdoor game since 2003).

So with the 2012 Winter Classic already a blip, the NHL is hustling to make sure the 2013 edition is the most anticipated hockey game in recent history. The league is planning on next year’s Winter Classic featuring two of the league’s most popular franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. The game is set for New Years Day at Michigan Stadium, which hosted an outdoor college game between Michigan and Michigan State in 2010–a game drew a crowd of 113,411, and there folks are already saying that the league is looking to surpass that number. Anything close to it would break the current NHL attendance record of 71,217 set at the 2008 NHL Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

So what’s going to make the 2013 Winter Classic rule? First: The game is being catered to built-in fans. Detroit has been called Hockeytown USA for as long as the Red Wings have been around. And two: The Red Wings’ opponent is another crazed hockey city–Toronto. If there are 115,000 seats available, you can bet that half of them will be filled with Leafs fans keen on trekking over the border.

It’s also the right time for the two teams to face off. Toronto has been trying to get involved in an outdoor game for years, but the Leafs’ failure to make the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout have made them a less than appealing choice. The Red Wings, who also played in the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago, have been one of the league’s most exciting teams for the past 20 years and fit right in with what the NHL is trying to promote. The Leafs? After a six-year playoff drought, the Maple Leafs are playing a new, up-tempo style that has them in position to finally make the post-season. When the two teams met earlier this month (the Leafs won 4-3), the Leafs’ new style was compared to the way Detroit has been playing since the mid-90s.

But it’s not the actual game I’m most stoked for. It’s the Alumni Game that comes with the Classic. The Leafs and the Red Wings have had some great players over the past 20-30 years. Imagine a Red Wings team of Yzerman, Federov, Larionov, Osgood, Hasek, Shanahan, Coffee, Oates, Fetisov, Chelios and Hull taking on a Leafs lineup of Sundin, Vaive, Salming, Clark, Gilmour, Roberts, Belfour, Potvin and Mcdonald. You could even have Curtis Joseph, Tiger Williams, Darryl Sittler and Larry Murphy switch sides between periods (Sittler would be a lock to start for the Leafs) to make things interesting.

With Sidney Crosby on the shelf, Alex Ovechkin in the midst of his worst season ever, and the 2012 Winter Classic anything but, it’s about time the NHL gave it’s fans something to look forward to. The 2013 announcement is just the ticket.